A Swell Yell
During the 1880s, prior to the formal organization of intercollegiate athletics, University pride manifested itself through somewhat different arenas – debates, oratorical and mathematical contests, and college yells.
In early 1886, the University Courier, KU’s weekly student paper, published a plea for the University to “adopt a yell” prior to that year’s state collegiate oratorical competition. While no cheer was agreed upon in time for event, the University Science Club inadvertently responded to the newspaper’s request later that spring when it devised its own yell – one that the rest of the University would quickly adopt.
The Science Club served primarily as a social club, admitting members by election and demanding yearly dues. It met weekly where it welcomed the periodic reading of papers and offered tutoring for younger students. Once a year the club sponsored an annual dinner banquet known as the “It,” at which professors presented farcical papers celebrating their “discoveries” and lampooned one another for the students’ enjoyment.
In the late spring of 1886, the Science Club decided that it needed to adopt a cheer. After rejecting several proposed yells, on May 21 of that year, club members approved one suggested by E. H. S. Bailey, a KU chemistry professor (and namesake of Bailey Hall). The student body at large quickly embraced the club’s new cheer which consisted of the phrase “Rah, Rah, Jay Hawk, KSU” repeated three times quickly with a staccato emphasis.
(In the late nineteenth century, the terms KU and KSU were used interchangeably. The KSU in Bailey’s cheer did not refer to Kansas State, which at the time was known as KSAC but has since adopted the KSU initials. The term “Jayhawk” was originally a pejorative used by pro-slavery Kansans to describe Free State supporters during the “Bleeding Kansas” period in the 1850s. Over time, “Jayhawk” lost its negative connotations and Kansans came to embrace the title as a term of endearment.)
Within a year, “Rah, Rah” had morphed into “Rock Chalk.” The person (or people) responsible for this change is unknown, but it is likely that the professors of geology in Snow Hall – whom Bailey credited with the alteration – played a role in altering the cheer. (Kansas is one of the few places in the United States where chalk rock, of the sort perhaps best exemplified in England’s Cliffs of Dover, occurs naturally.)
By 1889 an elongated, rolling cadence had replaced the original staccato meter of the yell, and students were belting out the cheer with a swagger that revealed the degree to which the chant had become a tangible manifestation of the University’s dignity. Indeed references to “our beloved Rock Chalk” were fairly commonplace in KU publications well into the twentieth century.
The enormous amount of pride that University students and alumni took in their cheer bred a mythology all its own. The myths ranged from the yell’s originating in the clicking of a train’s wheels as it was heard from a “swaying railway car” crossing the plains to supposed chalk rock outcroppings on Mt. Oread. (In 1956 the geology department pointed out that although no such outcroppings existed on the hill, they are found in western Kansas).
According to legend, the publication of an article in the Harvard University paper that ranked KU’s yell as the best college cheer in the country thwarted an attempt to replace “Rock Chalk” in the mid-1890s. Since KU’s conceit at the time was that it was the “Harvard of the West,” the cheer could hardly have gained a more fortunate endorsement. But then a son of Harvard trumped his alma mater one better. Theodore Roosevelt was reputed to have declared KU’s yell “the greatest college cheer ever devised.” And so the notion grew among those affiliated with the institution that KU had the greatest college cheer in the world.
Thus in December 1928, when KU Athletic Director Phog Allen issued a brochure which ostensibly laid out the cheer’s history – but really served as a compilation of the legends celebrating the University and its cheer – he titled it “The Most Famous College Yell in America.” The brochure exulted in events both real and imagined. It enumerated, for instance, the places in which the “inspiring cry, which now kindles fire in the hearts of Kansas athletes” had been used as a battle cry – Cuba, the Philippines, China, and the trenches of Europe during World War I. It likewise celebrated the story that a “group of athletes gathered from every quarter of the United States” at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium had allegedly chosen “Rock Chalk” to be given before the assembled European nobility in response to their request to hear an American college yell.
Despite the emergence of such a mythology surrounding the cheer, by 1928 many feared that the yell was dying. Numerous alumni wrote letters to local papers lambasting KU students for abandoning traditions. The authors of some of these missives swore melodramatic oaths to keep the yell alive until “Mount Oread has crumbled and been washed into the Kaw” and other epithets to that effect. Former KU student William Allen White, however, refused to lament the cheer’s decline and maintained instead in an editorial for his Emporia Gazette that if “Rock Chalk goes, something else will replace it – if replacement is needed. If not – it’s dead wood. Lop it off.”
The reports of its demise, as it turned out, were premature. The cheer continues to echo down to the ears of KU athletes from their supporters. It is even etched in stone.
The grotesques (not gargoyles as commonly assumed) atop the walls of Dyche Hall hold in their arms shields upon which are carved the words of the “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU” cheer. Those who feared its abandonment might rest assured that stone statues are keeping watch over their beloved yell.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas